Turkey Isn’t Abandoning the Kurds

In fact, Ankara is offering them desperately needed medical and humanitarian help -- all as part of its effort to win public support in case the peace process with its own Kurdish insurgents falls apart.


SURUC, Turkey — Sado was smoking a cigarette in the small infirmary in the besieged town of Kobani on Oct. 11 when two Kurdish fighters brought in one of their comrades, who had been shot in the shoulder. He was bleeding heavily, but the infirmary had only a few supplies left. Sado and his friend had to clean the wound using only their fingers — a process that hurts a lot more than using medical cloth. After delivering first aid, they put him in a car and sent him on the 45-minute journey to Turkey.

The car carrying the wounded fighter passed through an opening in the fence marking the border. After driving along dirt roads, it reached a secret field hospital near the Turkish border town of Suruc. While Kurdish fighters with Syrian passports use the official border gate to reach proper Turkish hospitals — Turkish officials say they have treated nearly 500 YPG members since the beginning of the clashes — militants with Turkish passports, like the man treated by Sado, use the secret route.

Most of these fighters are also members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), some of whom were involved in attacks against the Turkish army. The PKK, a Turkish affiliate of the YPG, has been fighting the Turkish state since the 1980s, and is considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the EU. The fighters are worried they will be arrested if they use the official border crossing; others have reported that medical aid has been less than forthcoming.

But Sado says it is impossible that Turkish authorities are unaware of the secret field hospital — he thinks they just look the other way. Sado and his colleagues have permission from the Turkish government to go back and forth between Kobani and Turkey, and many times they go through Turkish Army checkpoints — at times with the wounded fighters in the car. "They see us every day, they know the car we use," Sado said, referring to his old Renault 12. "So they just wave us through."

While anonymous U.S. officials have criticized Turkey for not intervening militarily against the Islamic State in Kobani, Ankara announced on Oct. 20 that it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its border to defend the besieged city. It has also moved aggressively on the humanitarian front — both opening its hospitals to Kurdish fighters, and providing for the 180,000 refugees who have fled into the country since the jihadist offensive began a month ago. These efforts are part of a struggle between the government and Kurdish political parties for public support: While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still hopes to leave behind a successful peace deal between the PKK and the government as one of his major legacies, the process has been thrown in doubt after protests in early October by Turkish Kurds, who want Ankara to do more to save Kobani, turned violent.

Dogan Eskinat, the spokesman for Turkey’s government humanitarian aid agency, AFAD, remembers the first frantic moments of his organization’s response to the crisis. He says that AFAD officials held an emergency meeting that started at 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 17 to coordinate their efforts to help refugees, and which only concluded at 4 a.m. By 7 a.m., AFAD was already setting up tents for the waves of Syrian Kurds crossing into Turkey.

AFAD runs three camps in Suruc, housing some 10,000 people. While most of these refugees stay in tents, a boarding school and military barracks are also being used. Most Kurdish refugees were told by the YPG not to stay in the AFAD camps, according to Sado and an AKP official in the region. They were warned that they would be subjected to Turkish propaganda, forced to register, and not be able to leave the camps or leave Turkey.

The refugees running from the war in Syria are stuck in the political war in Turkey. While the Turkish government wants to play the good guys by helping the refugees, the opposition — including the HDP, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party — refuses to allow them to reap the political benefits of this goodwill gesture. Some refugees now stay in camps run by the office of Suruc’s mayor, who is from the HDP, which act as a sort of Kurdish counterpoint to the camps run by AFAD.

Thus, the refugees find themselves on the front line in a propaganda battle. Hazal, a 24-year-old activist from Kobani volunteering as a health worker, speaks negatively about life in the HDP camps: She says their sanitary conditions are very bad, water-borne illnesses are widespread, and there is constant YPG propaganda. People are forced to refer to each other as "heval," or comrade — a term used by both PKK and YPG fighters. She even recalls a YPG member telling her, "If you visit your relatives staying in the AFAD camp, we will consider you a traitor."

The Turkish government’s supply of aid, however, has not been enough to stem the anger of some Turkish Kurds. The HDP and PKK called for protests earlier this month over what they deemed Turkey’s insufficient efforts to save Kobani; the demonstrations quickly turned into riots, claiming 40 lives in just four days. Most deaths did not occur in clashes between the protesters and the police, but in confrontations between PKK supporters and partisans of an obscure Kurdish Islamic party, Huda-Par, which PKK protesters believe supports the Islamic State. The violence has thrown the peace process in doubt — but both Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insist there is no turning back, even amid the current political conflict triggered by the war in Kobani.

There are signs that Kurdish leaders agree with their Turkish counterparts. After talks with the government, Turkey’s Kurdish leaders seem to have changed their approach. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of HDP, said his party will cooperate with the government to quell any future riots. Hatip Dicle, a prominent Kurdish politician, said there is no going back to the dark days of 1990s — the height of the war between Turkey and Kurdish guerrillas. He blamed the riots on supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric whose movement recently publicly broke with the government, and regional powers trying to destabilize Turkey by ending the peace process — a line that echoes Erdogan’s speeches.

The 30-year war between the Turkish state and the PKK claimed some 40,000 lives — neither side is eager to return to that bloody era. The war in Kobani represents a major setback, but according to the leaders of both sides, there is still hope.

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